houston voices

University of Houston: What should a faculty inventor’s role be in their startup?

Should you lead the company that's taking your technology to commercialization? Maybe. But maybe not. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Are you a faculty member at a university? Are you a researcher with an invention that you want to monetize? Do you want to start your own startup company? If you answered yes to these questions, another question you need to consider is, should you leave your research position at the university to lead your company or get out of the way entirely?

The answer to that question will be different for everyone. Some faculty inventors want to leave and launch a company based on their research. In most cases, faculty members want to keep their university roles. What is the right decision for you?

Douglas Hockard, the assistant vice president of Tech Launch Arizona at The University of Arizona, said, in a Tech Launch blog post, to consider your passion, time and expertise.

Do you have the passion?

Passion is required for anyone to enjoy their chosen career paths. Without passion, you are not going to want to dedicate your time or seek the expertise to become the best.

“Faculty researchers chose their careers intentionally, dedicating years of study and research to arrive where they are today. Most faculty are not interested in abandoning that career path,” Hockard said.

Leading a startup requires the same dedication that it took to get where you are in your university role.

Do you have the time?

A startup is not a part-time job. “While faculty researchers are rarely interested in leaving their career in the university, investors want a committed, and focused, leadership team. More than anything, the startup needs someone to focus full-time… to eschew any other pursuits and devote themselves fully to the success of the startup,” Hockard said.

Do you have the expertise?

Hockard mentions in his blog that there are roles that exist in startups for university faculty. The faculty inventor is the technology expert, and their knowledge will help in the commercialization of their technology. Sometimes there are better ways to support the startup while remaining in your university position.

“A scientific role in the company allows them to help guide the company technology direction while allowing someone else to focus on company formation, strategic planning, business development, and importantly, raising capital. What is most important is aligning the myriad needs of the startup with the knowledge, skills, and singular focus best suited to fulfill those needs,” Hockard said.

What's the big idea?

If you don’t have the passion, the time, or the expertise to run a startup or you just simply want to keep your university, maybe someone else should lead your startup.

“Without a doubt, identifying leadership can be daunting. While the desire might be to zero in on a ‘superstar,’ a startup needs someone that can commit the time and the effort and knows ‘what to do next.’ How can startups find that person?” Hockard said.

Your university’s technology transfer office can provide support and can be a good place for you to start. “TTOs provide myriad resources to help inventors move innovations ahead, including technology and market analysis, intellectual property protection, marketing, and more. Many full-service TTOs also have dedicated personnel to help launch startups based on university technologies.” Of course, it’s up to you who should join the company— especially to lead it— but having the support of “experienced potential partners” will help you make the right decision.

Startups need a lot of resources to become successful. Bringing in someone to help, if you don’t have the passion, time or expertise, could be very beneficial. If you do have all three of those things and you want to leave your university role, then go be the lead in your startup.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

The five finalists for Mentor of the Year in the Houston Innovation Awards sound off on their best advice. Photos courtesy

Houston is home to many great mentors — all hailing for completely different backgrounds.

At the Houston Innovation Awards Gala on November 9, InnovationMap and Houston Exponential are honoring five finalists selected by judges — and naming one winner — who have dedicated at least a portion of their lives to supporting others within the startup and tech scene in Houston.

Here are some words of wisdom from our awards honorees from the Mentor of the Year category for the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards.

"I always remind people to be open and ask for help. There is a common misconception that if you disclose your idea, someone else will quickly run with it and beat you to market! ... Don’t alienate yourself by overprotecting the idea and keeping it all to yourself. The more you open up about your idea the more feedback you’ll get, good and bad, both of which are vital in the success of the product long term."

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- Alfredo Arvide, Blue People and HOUnited. Arvide, who's been an advisor for over a decade, adds, that "most markets are big enough to allow competition to thrive, so keeping your idea behind close doors until you launch may hurt you as the market may not be ready for it. Having multiple players competing in the market will help you in the long run, as long as you have a great product and a sound marketing strategy."

"Understand the problem you are trying to solve. Build a team that works well together and has the intellect, drive, and willingness to develop and bring to market a solution for that problem. Leadership is not about giving orders and making all the decisions. It is about creating the environment for your team members individually and collectively to do their best work and be most fulfilled."

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- Barbara Burger, adviser and board member for several startups and organizations. With over 20 years of experience supporting startups, Burger says she is mostly focused on startups dedicated to decarbonizing the energy system.

"Don't have 'rocking chair regret.' What I mean is when you are old and in a rocking chair, you aren't going to regret the year (or less) you took away from a guaranteed salary to test if your idea worked. So, take the time and follow your dreams — you never know what could happen!"

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- Craig Ceccanti, T-Minus Solutions. Ceccanti, who also co-founded Pinot's Palette and Rivalry Technologies, has been mentoring for over a decade. "I love helping people and always have so helping others achieve their dreams is a natural progression for me, he says. "I've also had incredible mentors and I like to pay it forward every chance I get. I feel that mentoring is fun, therapeutic, and mutually beneficial as I feel I learn from the smart people I get to talk to daily!

"Bring great people on your journey with you — team members, advisors, investors, mentors, consultants, etc."

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- Emily Reiser, Texas Medical Center and Enventure. Reiser, who's mentored companies for several years, says it's her own mentors that inspired her. "I had excellent mentors who generously gave their time for me, especially Upendra Marathi, and it's just a given that I mentor others. It's a privilege to learn from the people I mentor and see them become successful."

"Be your own cheerleader. Stay true to yourself and don't give up."

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Kara Branch, founder of Black Girls Do Engineer Corp. "I have always been the only black woman in all my roles. As a mother of three daughters, my oldest daughter inspired Black Girls Do Engineer Corp.," Branch says. "When she daughter was 9, she came to me and said she wanted to be a software engineer. ... If anyone can help her achieve her dreams is her mom and I wanted to create a space for girls who look like my daughter to come together and do the things they love and are passionate about."

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